Murder is My Beat

murder is my beat 1The Noir Odyssey

Writer: Aubrey Wisberg

Based on a story by Wisberg & Martin Field

Director: Edgar G. Ulmer

Cinematographer: Harold E. Wellman

Music: Albert Glasser

Cast: Paul Langton, Barbara Payton, Robert Shayne, Selena Royle

Release: February 27, 1955

Studio: Allied Artists Pictures (Monogram)

Percent Noir: 70%

“Murder is My Beat” feels like the dying breath of the classic era of film noir. Everything in the movie feels like an afterthought, and even though it only clocks in at an hour fifteen, it feels endless.

1955 was the last year of the “classic noir” era, with 1956’s half noir/half sci-fi classic “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” metaphorically representing the pivot point where paranoid science fiction would replace paranoid crime dramas. Director Edgar G. Ulmer had already directed his first sci-fi film, the unfortunate “The Man From Planet X,” and after years of providing the smallest budget films with the atmosphere of A-pictures, here he can’t even be bothered to stage a shadow properly. The Poverty Row studios that conjured up some of the best and worst films noir were dying out, with Monogram changing its name to Allied Artists Pictures and producing a weird mix of big-budget A-pictures like “Friendly Persuasion” & “Love in the Afternoon” and their usual low-budget quickies. Former blonde bombshell Barbara Payton, in her last film role, apparently performs the entire thing having just woken up from a nap, without an ounce of the power of her previous work. The times, they were a’changin’, and “Murder is My Beat” served as proof that maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing.

A cop named Patrick (Paul Langton) has gone off the reservation and is found in a cheap-o motel by his friend/co-worker Rawley (Robert Shayne). Patrick starts explaining what happened, and we flash back to a murder he was investigating where a man named Fred Dean was hit with a blunt instrument then dropped into a fire in such a way that his face and hands are entirely charred. Any reader of at least one “Nancy Drew” mystery already knows Dean isn’t really Dean, but it takes the other characters about 30 minutes of screen time to catch on. Also, I’m not sure why Patrick needs to re-tell Rawley this part of the story, since Rawley was actively helping him at the time, but whatever.

murder is my beat 3The prime suspect is a woman named Eden Lane, and the best sequence in the film is Patrick tracking her up north when a blizzard happens. Instead of waiting and possibly losing the lead, Patrick abandons his car and treks up a mountain in the middle of a snowstorm to get to her cabin. Let me repeat that: the dude walks up a mountain. In a snowstorm. Awesomeness. When he finally gets to her cabin, Ulmer unleashes his one indelible visual – the cabin is almost entirely buried in the snow except its chimney.

Patrick shows himself inside and comes face to face with Eden, played by Payton. Her appearance has been drummed up quite a bit by almost everyone in the movie commenting on her beauty. The script, by producer Aubrey Wisberg, goes out of its way to make Eden seem irresistible, with an old woman describing her thusly: “(She) wore tight clothes. Indecent the way it showed her shape.” Then Patrick says she’s got “a face that would stand out in heaven.” Perhaps Wisberg did this at the last minute, after realizing that Payton just wasn’t delivering the electricity that was needed.

Eden says she clunked Dean on the head, but didn’t think she killed him. She allows herself to be taken back, where she is convicted for murder. Patrick puts her on a train to take her to prison upstate and, in the middle of the ride, Eden gasps – she’s certain she saw Dean at the train depot for a fraction of a second… and he’s alive! It’s here that the movie, which was passable previously, goes completely off the rails (this was not a train pun).

Does Patrick do something logical like stop the train and rush back to the depot with Eden to investigate? Or take Eden to prison, get a sketch of Dean and then return to the town to investigate? Hell no. Patrick grabs Eden and they jump off the moving train. Patrick says he’ll investigate for a week to try and find Dean, and if he finds nothing, he’ll take Eden to prison. So he’s committing career suicide because a convicted murderer said she thought she saw the man she admits to hitting over the head alive. Yep. Part of the reason this is so hard to swallow is because Payton really doesn’t sell the scene where she claims to see Dean (Ulmer and his editor wisely intercut the scene with the squeal of the train wheels to up the tension of the moment), but even if it were the best actress in the world the moment would still feel farfetched.

murder is my beat 2The second and third act are a very convoluted series of investigation scenes. Patrick does most of the footwork at first, with Eden (who has a miraculous number of new outfits materialize out of nowhere) staying in the hotel room. Ostensibly this is because Eden is a wanted felon, but the cops are looking out for Patrick too, so why not have the woman who can identify Dean along for the investigation? Whatever the case, it doesn’t matter because suddenly Eden disappears, abandoning Patrick to turn herself into the authorities (?!?) for literally no reason whatsoever. It’s here that Rawley re-enters the film and takes over as the sidekick, helping Patrick put the final pieces together.

This is weird, and not just from a storytelling stand-point. Payton, the lynchpin to the entire premise, disappears from the film right up until the final epilogue scene, where she barely talks. It makes me wonder if it was a production problem. Look, Payton obviously had many, many personal demons and this movie was made when she was on her way down. Perhaps the producer had to write her out of the film because the actress was having issues? Because otherwise I can’t fathom a reason for the story to take this odd left turn. Let me be clear, Payton doesn’t look drunk or on drugs in any of her scenes, but it’s not a good performance – she’s sleepwalking at best. And even though it makes no sense, at least Rawley is a good enough foil for Patrick, giving the scenes some life.

It all comes to an all-too-obvious climax aboard a moving train where one of the killers hurls herself off the moving train in front of another. And, despite the movie being produced twelve years after Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt,” the “effects” look way worse, with lighting reflecting off the rear-projection screen and a bit of the actress’ clothes bouncing back into frame after she drops. Whoops.

This was cinematographer Harold E. Wellman’s first production, and it seems amateur in every way. Not a single scene besides the aforementioned blizzard summons up even a bit of atmosphere or interest, and Ulmer’s lackluster framing doesn’t help matters. Ulmer was obviously capable of greatness, but I get no sense of that here, and I probably won’t remember a frame of it tomorrow. What a pity.

Score: *

Decoy

decoy 1Writer: Nedrick Young

Based on a story by Stanley Rubin

Director: Jack Bernhard

Cinematographer: L. William O’Connell

Music: Edward J. Kay

Cast: Jean Gillie, Robert Armstrong, Herbert Rudley, Edward Norris, Sheldon Leonard

Release: September 14, 1946

Studio: Monogram Pictures

Percent Noir: 100%

When I was about halfway through “Decoy,” and things were getting really insane, I began to wonder… if this had been the movie that was discovered by French cinephiles and then rediscovered by American cinephiles in the ‘70s, would “Decoy” have dethroned “Detour” as the ideal poverty row film noir? After all, since “Decoy” was “rediscovered,” it’s become a cult classic, rising in stature with every passing year. Both films wear their imperfections and barely-there production on their sleeves, and both represent the very best of what Poverty Row had to offer.

Both also tell the prototypical noir story, though “Decoy” is a little more — let’s use the word “eccentric” — in the telling. But there is one big hang-up that separates this film from most other comparable films noir: it’s told from the point of view of the femme fatale. Of course many films have the wicked woman as the alpha character, but few (“Clash by Night” and “Allotment Wives” come immediately to mind) actually tell the story from her perspective. The noir genre is veritably shitting itself with sad sacks just waiting to be taken advantage of, and that’s why “Detour” will probably never be dethroned as the essential noir. That said, “Decoy” is pretty extraordinary for what it is, with a main femme fatale that ranks right up there with “Leave Her to Heaven” and “Double Indemnity” in terms of memorability.

decoy 2The fatale in question is Margot, and she’s played by Jean Gillie in an extraordinary performance. If you’ve never heard of Gillie before, it’s because she was primarily an actress in Britain. She came to America, made this film and then a supporting performance in “The Macomber Affair” (unseen by me). She was married to Jack Bernhard, the director of this film, and when the marriage dissolved, she raced home to England… and died of a pneumonia. The entire story is obviously tragic, much more so when you look at her work here, which is calculated in a way so perfect that you cannot look away from her. For most of the film, she speaks in a very straightforward, logical manner, as if this is the only way to think about a given situation, no matter how insane. But then at the film’s climax, Margot shoots a man, collects a box of money and cackles as she almost skips out of the dark woods toward her car. The sudden turn in character is brilliant and Gillie takes it just to the edge of caricature without going over. It’s a truly beautiful moment… in a dark and fucked up way, of course.

Had Gillie been the only great thing about “Decoy” it still would be a decent film, but screenwriter Nedrick Young (who later wrote “The Defiant Ones” and “Inherit the Wind”) and director Bernhard have a few more tricks up their sleeves. The film begins with a doctor named Craig (Herbert Rudley) seemingly coming back to life and then marching across state on a mission. He hitchhikes hundreds of miles to an apartment building where he shoots Margot point blank. How did this happen? It’s a “gotcha” opening that engages you immediately, and soon we’re flashing back.

Margot is boinking a mobster named, un-shockingly, Frankie (Robert Armstrong, appropriately oily). Frankie’s got almost half a million stored somewhere, but won’t tell Margot. This doubly sucks for Margot since Frankie is in prison and about to head to the gas chamber. She begs him to give her the location, but he says the only way she’ll get it is if she breaks him out.

decoy 3So Margot comes up with a plan. She’ll break Frankie out… after he’s dead. Yes, you read that part right. She partners/seduces rival mobster Jim (Edward Norris) and the aforementioned Craig in no time flat and tells them her plan. Let Frankie die and then steal his body, inject it with something called methylene blue, and Frankie will come back to life. Again, you read that right. I spent 30 seconds Googling methylene blue, and it counteracts cyanide, which I assume is what they used in the gas chambers back in the day. So there you go, a foolproof method to come back to life – you’re welcome.

It’s nuts. But so was “The Narrow Margin” and a myriad of other films noir, but you still get wrapped up in the storytelling. It works. You can’t take your eyes off Margot, and the three men she’s got wrapped around her little finger all give suitably good performances as they willingly turn around to get stabbed in the back. Yep, none of you will be surprised to learn that she betrays all of them. The most grisly method is reserved for Jim, who she runs over with her car seconds after he changes her tire. Aww…

Also in play is a detective Margot calls JoJo (Sheldon Leonard), who is so hardboiled he eats hardboiled eggs at a bar. I don’t have much more to say about him, I just wanted to make the egg joke above.

The scenes involving Frankie’s body are impressively staged, with Bernhard using long, dark shadows in large, mostly empty rooms. Young has some fun with the scene where two morgue attendants argue hilariously about word pronunciation and how to properly fold a sheet around a body. The moment Frankie is brought back to life, the slight bumps in his heart are echoed perfectly by Edward J. Kay’s score and you get goosebumps. There’s something awesome about Frankie needing to prove it to himself that he’s still alive, and does so by blowing on a match to show he’s breathing again.

Through it all, Margot seems to perfectly calculate every situation, bouncing from man to man depending on what the moment calls for, but in reality only caring about the money. She has this monologue about the streets she grew up on in England being no different than the streets we see here, and Gillie nails Young’s great dialogue. Then, as Craig digs up the box of money, Margot maniacally cackles another string of great dialogue, but Gillie makes it sound like Margot is having great sex, ramping up for an orgasm the moment she gets her mitts on the money.

It all ends with Margot spitting out her final triumph as she bleeds to death. She asks JoJo to kiss her, then laughs in his face as he bends over to give her one. After she dies, it’s revealed that the money isn’t in the box. Of course it wasn’t. But Margot died thinking it was. Thinking she won. And that somehow feels fitting for the final fadeout. “Decoy” is absurd, but you’ll never forget it once you watch it, and how many films can you say that about?

Score: *****

Crossfire

crossfire 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: John Paxton

Based on the novel “The Brick Foxhole” by Richard Brooks

Director: Edward Dmytryk

Cinematographer: J. Roy Hunt

Music: Roy Webb

Cast: Robert Young, Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Gloria Grahame, George Cooper

Release: July 22, 1947

Studio: RKO Radio Pictures

Awards: Nominated for Best Picture (lost to “Gentleman’s Agreement”), Best Director (lost to Elia Kazan for “Gentleman’s Agreement”), Best Supporting Actor for Robert Ryan (lost to Edmund Gwenn for “Miracle on 34th Street”), Best Supporting Actress for Gloria Grahame (lost to Celeste Holm for “Gentleman’s Agreement”) and Best Adapted Screenplay (lost to “Miracle on 34th Street”)

Percent Noir: 80%

Well… that sucked.

I take no pride in telling you that “Crossfire” is a bad movie. As I turned it on, I was actively rooting for it to blow me away. It’s a noir from the director of “Murder, My Sweet” starring the three Roberts plus Gloria Grahame. It rails against antisemitism, and in doing so, its director (among others) would be blacklisted thanks to the Communist witch hunts (it really, really didn’t pay to be liberal in Hollywood back then)… so it means something. Even more, it was nominated for 5 Oscars including Best Picture, and was the first B-picture ever to be nominated for that award. So please understand that I went into the movie hoping and expecting it to be amazing.

But then it wasn’t good.

The story, adapted by John Paxton and directed by Edward Dmytryk, is fairly straightforward for a murder mystery. A Jewish man is found killed in his apartment and Captain Finlay (Robert Young) is assigned to the case. He was killed by a serviceman named Montgomery (Robert Ryan), who attempts to frame another officer named Mitchell (George Cooper). Oh, and Robert Mitchum is there too, because… actually, I’m not sure, and I bet neither did the filmmakers.

crossfire 2Fundamentally, I have issues here. So many issues. Did the filmmakers think that the story was supposed to function as a mystery at all? If so, they really blew their load within the first five minutes, and then let the cat out of the bag motive-wise twenty minutes in when Montgomery reveals he’s very anti-Semitic. And Montgomery is a fundamentally stupid villain – dumb enough to murder another guy in a plot “twist” while screaming “I don’t like Jews! And I don’t like nobody that likes Jews!!” Subtle. Very. Oh, and that killing should make it so much easier for the police to realize it’s him.

We never get a sense that Mitchell’s character, who is the prime suspect, is in any real danger of being arrested – he’s an afterthought in the plot. There’s apparently a manhunt out for him that the writer and director don’t exploit at all, and then they stick him in a movie theater for a good chunk of the movie because they don’t want to deal with the character. Later when his wife (Jacqueline White, trying hard) shows up and, among other things, speaks with the sex worker (Gloria Grahame) who might have fucked him during the time the murder took place, you things might pick up… but again, the movie drops it almost as soon as it happens, no consequences aside from an offhand line from Mitchum near the end of the film.

Noir has some really, really stupid cops in it, but Finlay is in a class by himself. He never investigates anything! He tells people that they are in custody, then lets them go about their business doing whatever they want. He keeps Mitchum’s character around for no reason (perhaps someone to bounce exposition off of?). He allows the suspect’s wife to talk to him in the theater before picking him up! Then he allows her to talk to Grahame’s sex worker/possible witness before he does, despite the fact that it may color the investigation! When Finlay finally realizes that it was the really suspicious-acting guy who was spewing anti-Semitic stuff from minute one, he forms an elaborate plan where a stupid man has to convince Montgomery that his murder victim is alive then pass him a note with an address to go to. Got that? Not just pass Montgomery a note that says “Hey, I know you strangled me and then hung me, but I’m alive, so come to my address so we can talk more,” which is already a stretch.

crossfire 3And how can one overlook the finale, with execution so silly it’s laughable. Montgomery races out of the apartment where Finlay is confronting him without confessing, and hurries outside where he sees a police car, then runs in the other direction. Does the car simply chase him down to catch him? Nope! With nary a confession or any real evidence, Finlay breaks the window of the apartment and guns the unarmed Montgomery down in the street. Because of course.

And then there’s the whole antisemitism of it all. I’m sure audiences were certain going in that they were watching a message movie (look at the poster, for example) and perhaps that’s why Paxton shows his hand so early. But that’s no excuse for the 15 minute, excruciating sequence where Finlay brings in the idiot necessary for his plan and, at length, monologues messages about tolerance as if he were speaking to a pre-schooler. Seriously, “The Sneetches” is more subtle. Again, the audience probably knew that this was a message movie, so the filmmakers were essentially preaching to the choir, making all of this unnecessary. Plus, I doubt many anti-Semites are going to voluntarily go to a movie about antisemitism. I’m all for great messages of tolerance in films, but I’d prefer them presented well. Look at how homophobia is presented in “Victim” just a few years later (which is a little problematic in itself) and it’s like night and day.

Dmytryk seems to be on autopilot here, unable to make the film distinctive visually nor getting good performances from his actors. There’s a flashback here where the characters are drunk and their faces slightly blur, which feels like a cheap visual cue considering how sublime he handled the drugged Phillip Marlow in “Murder, My Sweet.” You’ve got the usual shadows created by staircases and…well… not much else of note.

And, as I said, the performances aren’t that great. Each of the main cast gets a monologue or two to play around with, but the writing isn’t engaging and you realize halfway through their speeches that they aren’t saying much of anything. Ryan was nominated for an Oscar for his work, which is surprising considering he’s playing “obviously psycho dude” in every scene. Grahame was nominated for Best Supporting Actress and does fine, though her work pales in comparison to “The Big Heat” and “In a Lonely Place” and “Sudden Fear” and “The Bad and the Beautiful” and… I’ll stop before I get started. Cooper is a very decent actor and I’m surprised he never did anything else with his career. Young does nothing with the role and is quickly forgotten. Mitchum, as I said, has no purpose in the film but to stand around giving the affair star quality (why wasn’t he cast as the husband?). He looks bored, and rightfully so.

If you do decide to watch “Crossfire” for its historical importance, might I suggest a drinking game to get you through? Take a drink every time any character says “fella” or “buddy.” You’ll be drunk by the ten-minute mark, which should make the rest of it go down easy.

Score: *

Stray Dog

Nora_inu_posterThe Kurosawa Odyssey

Year: 1949

Studio: Toho Studios

Screenwriter: Akira Kurosawa & Ryuzo Kikushima

Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Awaji, Eiko Miyoshi

Cinematographer: Asakazu Nakai

Music: Fumio Hayasaka

That “Stray Dog” works at all today as a modern miracle. Its detective tropes and the dynamic of the two detectives at the center of the film have inspired hundreds of thousands of similar mysteries and noirs, both in film and on television. And yet not only does this movie work, but it works incredibly well.  This is the second noir Kurosawa co-wrote and directed, and far better than “Drunken Angel.” It’s also the movie where I’d say Kurosawa became “Kurosawa.”

The plot is simple but engaging. A newly minted police detective named Murakami (Toshiro Mifune) has his gun pickpocketed on a crowded city bus. He becomes obsessed with finding the person who has the gun, which is being used for heinous crimes all throughout Toyko. At a certain point, Murakami is partnered up with a more seasoned detective named Sato (Takashi Shimura), whose approach to policing couldn’t be further from Murakami’s. Oh, and there’s a heat wave because things are always better when they take place in heat waves.

Both of the main characters are fascinating, and screenwriters Ryuzo Kikushima and Kurosawa create a masterstroke in delaying the introduction of Sato until almost 45 minutes into the movie. 99.99% of similar detective stories introduce the two paired detectives right away so we get to know them through their interaction with one another, but not here. The writers give us 40-odd minutes with just Murakami – we get to know him and, very importantly, understand why he’s as obsessed with getting the gun back as he is. If Sato was there from the get go with his differing opinions about how Murakami should be reacting to the situation, it would have hurt our identification with him.

tumblr_lzk4q4MPFV1r9w2jlo1_500What also makes Murakami interesting is that, if things had gone just a little bit differently, he could have been the frightened penniless murderer with the gun. Murakami was in the war, and the amount of able men who returned to find nothing waiting for them is staggering (something Kurosawa has touched on in four movies before this one), and getting the detective’s job was just plain luck. It didn’t have to happen that way. This brings an unease to the final confrontation between “hero” and “villain,” because in a way we are watching Murakami fight against himself.

Pretty deep for what at first glance appears to be a completely straightforward detective story, right?

And then we have Sato, who is unfortunately the lesser of the two detectives in terms of our engagement. This is completely not the fault of the film, the writing or Shimura’s wonderful performance. Everything about his character has been mined so many times in so many lesser movies beat for beat that you can’t help but know exactly what he’s going to say, how he’s going to say it and what’s going to happen in response. The second Sato takes Murakami home to meet the family, you know he’s going to be shot and that Murakami is going to feel guilt about it. You know he’s going to tell the youngster not to be as emotionally invested in the case as he is.

MV5BMTYzNzYzMjYxMV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjIxMjU4Mw@@._V1_SY500_CR0,0,707,500_AL_Even as I write that, I should point out that the way he is introduced is still interesting and, ultimately, superior to almost every homage and rip-off of Sato’s character. Instead of the co-writers immediately setting up the dynamic between the two detectives, they let Sato take charge of the investigation, with Murakami in the backseat observing the way he questions suspects and deduces things from the information he’s just gleaned.

Together, Mifune and Shimura crackle together with more chemistry than in their previous collaborations combined. They just… work. Simple as that. It would be easy but ultimately futile to talk about specific moments and why it works, because a lot of it is just fate. Let the excellence just be excellent.

The movie is very interestingly shot and edited. I would love to read the original screenplay to see just how many of the distinctive elements come from the writing and how many surfaced in the editing room. Some don’t work, but the vast majority do.

First is the out of continuity opening, where we learn he lost the gun by seeing Murakami tell his boss, then we zip back and forth as we uncover how exactly it happened. It sets the stakes high quickly, show that Murakami is a good officer despite this grievous error that could make viewers unsympathetic, and keeps us intellectually engaged as it peels away the layers of the onion. There’s even a narrator, who is randomly there and gone, but it still works in the context of the opening.

The second is an incredibly long sequence, lasting minutes, where Murakami is wandering through the slums and bombed out areas of Tokyo in order to be seen as a “lost soul” and be approached by someone who will lend him a gun. You keep thinking the sequence must be wrapping up, but it doesn’t. And it doesn’t. And it still doesn’t. But it oddly doesn’t become grating – it’s a masterstroke that Kurosawa let it go as long as it does. On a simple plot level, it reflects the frustration Murakami must be feeling about his inability to easily solve the case. On a deeper level, it’s Kurosawa laying train tracks that sets up Murakami’s identifying with the man who stole his gun…and underlines how close Murakami was to this life. Finally, on a “let’s be real” level, it works because that’s how cases are in real life – full of fits and starts, but sometimes stuck with the wheels spinning for an eternity.

The third is a big set piece that does not work. It’s at the biggest baseball game of the year – every person in Tokyo seems to be there… including the man who apparently has the gun. The two detectives have to find him and, more importantly, get the gun from him before he kills innocent people. The stakes couldn’t be higher…but it just doesn’t work. Kurosawa and his editor cut away for a long time to the actual gameplay on the field, and I’m not sure why. It doesn’t help with the suspense, nor does it help us on a character level. It’s just… there. It’s hard not to think about what a missed opportunity this is, especially considering it’s one of the centerpieces of the movie. Imagine what Welles or Hitchcock or Hawks could have done with that and you’ll see why it’s such a letdown.

Finally, you’ve got the finale, which has Murakami fighting with the villain in an endless field of flowers. In theory, it’s just another variation on stuff we’ve seen from Kurosawa before – the high grass battle in “Sanshiro Sugata,” the snow battle in “Sanshiro Sugata Part 2,” – but in execution it’s beautiful. The flowers are such a brilliant image at odds with what is happening, and the moment after Murakami is shot and blood from his hand drips on a white flower is the most memorable in the movie. Well, that or the shot of the two men, handcuffed together and attempting to recover from their fight. They both struggle to catch their breath, and then the villain just starts to scream at the top of his lungs in agony. At his life, at being caught… at everything. It’s emotionally shattering.

I like Kurosawa’s two subsequent crime movies, “High and Low” and “The Bad Sleep Well” more than “Stray Dog,” but then again those are both masterpieces that rank as two of the greatest films of all time. That said, “Stray Dog” is a distinguished noir, one that works better than almost all it inspired, and if this was the only movie Kurosawa ever made, it’s safe to say that it would still be remembered fondly today.

Notes:

-The women in this movie are the most fascinating characters that Murakami and Sato encounter. The first, who Murakami follows throughout the entire hot day before finally giving in and helping him while they share a beer, is so much deeper than she needed to be. The girlfriend of the villain is shallow, but purposely shallow, and still very engaging.

-You’ve got to love the seeds being planted for “Scandal” when someone states the following about a dead body being photographed by many photographers: “She would never want anyone to see her this way.”

-There’s another musical number in this movie, a well done one, but the really cool part happens immediately after. The dancers walk backstage and literally collapse from exhaustion and heat, their legs simply giving up on them.

-The Criterion disc has a wonderful essay by Terrence Rafferty that mentions that Kurosawa didn’t like the film because he didn’t feel like it captured the mood of the author he was trying to emulate. Rafferty argues that this is a moot point since it’s the first Kurosawa movie where the identity of its creator is so obviously Kurosawa – not influenced by anyone else. I agree with this assessment.

The Window

The_window_1949The Noir Odyssey

Writer: Mel Dinelli

Based on: “Fire Escape” written by Cornell Woolrich

Director: Ted Tetzlaff

Cinematographer: Robert De Grasse

Music: Roy Webb

Cast: Bobby Driscoll, Barbara Hale, Arthur Kennedy, Paul Stewart, Ruth Roman

Release: August 6, 1949

Studio: RKO Radio Pictures

Awards: Driscoll won a special Juvenile Oscar for both “The Window” & “So Dear to My Heart.” The film was nominated for Best Editing (Frederic Knudston) but lost to “Champion.” It was also nominated for a WGA Award for Best Screenplay, Drama, but lost to “All the King’s Men.”

Percent Noir: 50%

When I was growing up, I was Tommy Woodry. Tommy has a penchant for creating fantastic stories to get attention. And though I never told anyone that I had a ranch in the West that I was going to move to as soon as all the Native Americans living there were killed (yikes, Tommy, just yikes), I did tell my classmates that I was in the running for the role of Robin in “Batman Forever” and that I had a bit part in “The World is Not Enough” where I sold James Bond a piece of fruit. When you’re young, these other worlds you create give you the opportunity to escape your life, if only for a few moments.

Tommy (Bobby Driscoll) is a poor kid living in a falling-apart tenement in New York City with few friends and parents (Barbara Hale, Arthur Kennedy) who are becoming tired of his lies. One night Tommy is so hot he goes out onto the fire escape to sleep. He wakes up and peeks through a window to see his upstairs neighbors the Kellersons (Paul Stewart and Ruth Roman) kill a man. Tommy desperately tries to get anyone to believe what he saw, but of course no one does.

MV5BZmYxMjI3OTktMmEwNS00ZWU3LTk0YWYtNTc2ODA0ZjdmYzliXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTk2MzI2Ng@@._V1_SX503_CR0,0,503,382_AL_Driscoll’s work as Tommy is fantastic – one of the best children’s performances on film ever. He first must be likable despite all the lies he tells, and then believably terrified in the final two acts, and Driscoll gives all that and more. He is always certain of his convictions regarding what he saw, but his repetitive statements of what happened never get annoying. There’s a small moment where Tommy’s parents are leaving him for the evening and Tommy knows that he’s probably going to be killed where he holds onto his mother tight when he hugs her goodbye, and my heart just broke watching him.

And though the storyline could have easily been watered down, it’s pretty savage, allowing dark material into the film. We see the bloody wound on the back of the murdered man along with Tommy. Later, Tommy is trapped in a closet with the dead body. Oh yeah, and at the climax Tommy straight-up murders Mr. Kellerson in self-defense!

All of that pales in comparison to a sequence after the Kellersons have kidnapped Tommy, which is one of the most horrifying in the history of film… just as frightening as anything from “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “The Exorcist” or “Audition.” The Kellersons throw Tommy in the back of a taxi, which weaves through the streets. Tommy pulls and fights and screams, but the driver pretends that nothing is happening. Moments later Tommy’s screams get the attention of a cop, but despite Tommy’s pleas, the cop believes the Kellersons that Tommy is their kid and just misbehaving. It’s excruciating and almost impossible to watch.

Despite barely sketching out the Kellersons as more than “token bad guys,” the script by Mel Dinelli (“The Spiral Staircase,” “The Reckless Moment”) is always smarter than it needs to be. After Tommy sees the murder, he does all the right things. He begs his parents to believe him. When they don’t, he goes to the police. When the officer escorts him home, Tommy begs not to be seen with him, otherwise the Kellersons will know what’s happening. He pleads to go with his mother to his sick aunt, and then asks his dad to go to work with him. This is what any smart, helpless child would do in the situation… and as a result the audience is with Tommy 100%. Dinelli breaks POV several times from Tommy to show adults talking about the situation, but though I would normally find that annoying and it would take me out of the film, here it underlines that no one believes the kid – and this invests you even more in his plight.

window1949_1741_678x381_09262013103755The film’s third act is essentially one very long chase scene, with the Kellersons using any means necessary to catch and murder Tommy. In all, it’s almost 20 minutes of straight suspense. At certain points, it seems like it’s going to become too much, but here is where director Ted Tetzlaff and his cinematographer Robert De Grasse go crazy with expressionism, atmospherics and visual invention. Once the couple chase Tommy into a disintegrating building, Tetzlaff offers some truly iconic noir imagery. The building is mostly black and cast in dark shadows, but Tetzlaff was smart enough to set up the blueprint of the place in the first, well-lit scene, and therefore the audience always understands where Tommy and the other characters are. There’s a moment on the fifth floor where Tommy races up some stairs, followed closely by Mr. Kellerson, and then the stairs collapse beneath Kellerson… and we watch some (what I presume to be) incredible miniature work as the stairs tumble four floors to the ground below.

Though he directed 14 features, Tetzlaff is known more for his cinematography work, which includes “Notorious” and “My Man Godfrey.” Here his budget was a little more than $200,000, or the equivalent of a Monogram Picture, but “The Window” feels just as big as it needs to, and though the finale was obviously filmed on a shoestring with shadows equaling most of the atmosphere, you walk away thinking you saw a major action/suspense set piece that is just as good as anything from an A-list feature.

It’s a shame that “The Window” is one of those very good films noir that has fallen through the cracks of time. I can see why – a child protagonist, a cast without any major stars (or even dependable noir figures) and a director who never directed a movie close to this quality. And yet, for those willing to seek out this gem, there is great reward indeed. I’m telling the truth – I promise.

Score: ****1/2

The Bat Whispers

Writer: Roland WestosjO9Qm3jdymuMormKYFKgzn7Um

Based on: “The Bat” play written by Avery Hopwood & Mary Roberts Rineart

Director: Roland West

Cinematographer: Robert H. Planck

Music: Hugo Riesenfeld

Cast: Chester Morris, Grayce Hampton, Maude Eburne, Una Merkel

Release: November 30, 1930

Studio: United Artists

Percent Noir: 30%

The beginning of film noir has proven to be as tough a thing to nail down as exactly what defines a noir itself. Many point to John Huston’s 1941 “The Maltese Falcon,” with its private dick and femme fatale. Others point to 1940’s “Stranger on the Third Floor,” with its cool visual style. But then that would disregard Raoul Walsh’s “They Drive By Night,” which was released several months earlier. Many point to the left-field choice of Fritz Lang’s masterpiece “M,” released in 1931, which has many of the hallmarks of great noir but wasn’t released in America, where most point to as the originator of noir. In case you couldn’t tell, I’m more inclusive of what films are defined as noir – all of the above films work for me. And I’d like to throw a different film into the ring: 1930’s “The Bat Whispers.”

Upon first glance, “The Bat Whispers” is a weird mash-up of about seven different genres, most obviously a humorous whodunit in the vein of the Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto series. But it’s also an old mansion chiller in the vein of “Cat and the Canary,” a caper film closely related to the much-later “Judex,” and the main inspiration for comics’ most noir-inspired hero Batman. From a visual standpoint, the film is dripping with film noir style, to the point where many of the images here prefigure iconic noir images still over a decade away.

The film itself is a very odd duck in almost every way. A remake of the recently released “The Bat” to cash in on the new medium of sound, “Whispers” was added to the title to ensure audiences that “Hey! You’re gonna hear stuff too!” It would later be remade as a little B-thriller in the ’50s starring Vincent Price and Agnes Moorehead. Director Roland West, then at the height of his popularity, decided to further experiment with the film. He decided to shoot two versions, one in 35 mm and one in glorious 70 mm widescreen (this is the version I’ll be referring to for this article). Yes, you read that right, widescreen. He also decided to lean hard into special effects, using a myriad of miniature sets and trick effects to achieve proper atmosphere.

batbAnd, especially for the first 12 minutes, “The Bat Whispers” is insanely beautiful. I watched, my jaw dropped, as West and his cinematographer Robert H. Planck open on a clock tower in the middle of the city before swooping down at full speed all the way to street level in one “unbroken” take (I put unbroken in quotes because West buries a cut from miniatures to live action in the drop). Then we’re in a police car listening to exposition about the great thief known as The Bat promising to rob some diamonds from a locked room at midnight. These few car shots have the best instance of rear projection I’ve ever seen on film, to the point where I genuinely wonder if the actors were just in moving cars. But there’s more! A rip-roaring break-in where The Bat climbs down the side of a building to steal diamonds! A stunning neo-gothic shot of the Bat watching a late-night “transaction” at a bank! Travelling shots of speeding chases through woods! And, of course, the mansion where most of the action will take place, situated on sprawling grounds in the middle of a dark and stormy night!

Basically, I was in pure bliss during these first 12 minutes. I couldn’t believe more people didn’t discuss the film. I felt like I had discovered a treasure among treasures. Then the rest of the movie happened.

It’s not that the remaining hour of “The Bat Whispers” is bad, per se. It’s that you can tell that West, the actors and filmmakers were really in over their heads and didn’t know how to exploit the use of sound in the same way they could amaze with the film’s visuals. The plot shifts to a spinster named (not kidding) Cornelia Van Gorder (Grayce Hampton) who has rented the house for the summer. Her very, very, very, very, very annoying maid Lizzie (Maude Eburne) screams and screams at everything. Apparently even though the mansion is in the middle of nowhere, about ten characters show up, most with hidden motives, in order to hunt down a million dollars that are stashed somewhere on the grounds. Oh, and one of the guests is The Bat.

The fact that there isn’t much of a musical underscore to the film (Max Steiner’s iconic work for “King Kong” was still three years away) really hurts the action, horror and atmosphere. But the most egregious thing that prevents you from enjoying the film is that every single actor appears to be speaking English for the first time in his or her life. We’ve all seen “Singin’ in the Rain” and know the difficulties silent actors had acclimating to sound (and hidden mics), and “The Bat Whispers” is a prime example of this. Everyone speaks VERY LOUD and no one contracts their words, even when it sounds way weirder not to. Lizzie’s ear-piercing screams of terror weren’t funny the first time, but West has her do it at least six times.

And the dialogue those characters say is pretty atrocious too. Everyone speaks in clichés, as if throwing in any subtlety will go over the audiences’ heads. There are a few moments of wit, like when Cornelia chastises Lizzie for not getting glasses and Lizzie retorts “I do not need no glasses. My eyes are all right. It’s my arms – they ain’t long enough.” But even these lines are delivered by the actors as if they were aliens trying to communicate with a new race.

BatWhispers (124)
Gosh, I wonder who the villain could be…

The main mystery has more than a few logic gaps as well, and I write that as someone who loves these kinds of whodunnits more than candy. For example, I attempt to swallow the fact that Cornelia refuses to leave the mansion when every single person with any sense of logic or self-preservation would take her by the shoulder and say: “Honey. Leave.” That said, why the hell would anyone hide a section of a blueprint in a piece of bread (you read that right – inside a piece of bread). Why is every single character incapable of going off with a partner instead of walking off by himself? And when a character is found standing over a dead body with a gun in her hand, Cornelia insists that the Police Officer (Chester Morris) can’t arrest anyone until after a coroner’s report is made. Um, what now? And, from a visual standpoint, West only gives close-ups to that Officer, warping his face with noir shadows that just scream that he’s the bad guy.

That said, when the movie is good, it’s great. 99.999% of these moments are purely visual, as when a character opens a hatch onto the roof to see another racing across it. There’s one incredible sequence that prefigures much more lauded and famous moments in “Cat People” and “Wait Until Dark” where a female character finds herself trapped in a dark room with the killer who is ready to pounce on her. That itself is terrifying enough until a third (!), silent character enters too for reasons unknown. And how can you not have fun with the purposely stage-y epilogue moment that I won’t spoil for you here?

If you haven’t heard of West before, you are not alone. But in 1930 he was so popular that audiences knew his name and his brand was enough to sell a picture. But after his mistress, actress Thelma Todd, was found dead in 1935, his career took a nosedive. Though it appears Todd died accidentally of carbon monoxide poisoning, West was crucified in the press, who considered it a murder where he was the prime suspect. The fact that he was basically living with his mistress (they had adjoining apartments) didn’t bode well for his popularity either. It’s a pity – the guy was talented.

So yeah, “The Bat Whispers” isn’t a good movie. But it’s a movie that has greatness within it. I’d rather watch a movie that reaches for something beyond its grasp than a film that is content to be nothing but mediocre. The first 12 minutes in particular are visually unparalleled by any other films of the era and were rarely matched by any noir – if you haven’t seen it yet, drop what you are doing and look it up.

Score: ***

The French Connection

french connection 1AFI Top 100 Ranking: 93

Release: October 9. 1971

Writer: Ernest Tidyman

Director: William Friedkin

Star: Gene Hackman, Roy Schneider, Alain Charnier

Music: Don Ellis

Cinematography: Owen Roizman

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Watching “The French Connection” is the cinematic equivalent of taking a sledgehammer to the chest. No other thriller, modern or otherwise, has struck such a fantastic balance between the bombastic and the painstakingly precise. Because of this, the tension in the film becomes almost unbearable for the viewer, to the point where you look down and realize you’ve fisted your hands so tightly that you have dug your nails deep into your palm.

The film opens in France with a man buying some bread and mounting an obscene amount of stone steps (shades of director William Friedkin’s at-the-time-yet-to-be-filmed “The Exorcist”) and being shot in the head by an assassin. Gradually we learn that this was all part of an intricate conspiracy to smuggle huge amounts of almost-pure heroin to New York City. The action shifts to America, where a narcotics detective named Doyle (Gene Hackman) and his partner Russo (Roy Schneider) become involved.

french connection 2Friedkin, as he often does in his best work, turns the film’s setting into a character in the movie. Here New York a decaying, gray corpse of a city. The sky is always cloudy, the streets are nearly deserted (though the subway system is packed) and when Doyle’s obsession begins, the noises of the city gradually dissipate until the echo of his shoes on the pavement is all that we hear. Friedkin shoots France and Washington D.C. in stark contrast to this, further underlining that Doyle’s actions might be futile because the city is too far gone already.

Writer Ernest Tidyman and Friedkin focus all of their characterization efforts on Hackman’s Doyle, and even then they don’t try to turn him into a three-dimensional character; they create a blunt object that you fully believe will stop at nothing to achieve his goals. You are terrified of what would happen if you crossed him, and by the time he gets in that car to begin the landmark chase after an elevated train, you aren’t as worried for him as you are for the bystanders. Schneider’s sidekick has virtually no depth and doesn’t question Doyle’s insanity, making you wonder which one has more mental problems.

While the last paragraph might read as a criticism, I don’t mean it to be one. The creative team absolutely made the right decision to make “The French Connection” into a series of moments, large and small, rather than a character study. As interesting a guy as Doyle is, if the movie would have stopped for even a scene to attempt to understand him or empathize with him, then it would have imploded. After his classic introduction in his Santa suit, you might begin asking yourself questions about Hackman’s character, but by the time Schneider shows up at his apartment to find him handcuffed by his ankle to a bedpost, you stop asking and just go with it.

Newer movies have forgotten how to build tension. “The French Connection” reminded me just how explosive a film can be if paced with delicate precision. There is an almost-Hitchcockian sequence of calculated suspense where Hackman has pursued a villain down to an underground subway stop. The villain boards a train, and Doyle follows. But just before the doors close, the villain gets off the train, causing Doyle to follow suit. Back and forth the duo go, wandering about the platform pretending the other does not exist and getting on and off of subway cars until Doyle finally misses the train by a fraction of a second. It’s a beautifully choreographed sequence filmed with as little dialogue as possible (there are wonderfully eerie, lengthy patches of the movie with no dialogue whatsoever) that ends in frustration and powerlessness for both the viewer and Doyle.

A little later, a woman pushing a baby carriage is savagely murdered by a sniper’s bullet meant for Doyle. The “hero” gives chase, and by this time both he and the viewer are so frustrated and angry that we want Doyle to get the bad guy by any means necessary.

french connection 3Those means turn into one of the greatest sequences ever filmed. Comparisons are often made to “Bullitt,” but for me it has more in common with the climax of “Strangers on a Train,” with a runaway subway car substituted for the gone-awry merry-go-round. The sniper gets onto an elevated train and takes the driver hostage. Hackman’s character stops the first car he can and pursues the train at obscene speeds through the crowded Brooklyn streets. The driver soon dies of a heart attack and the subway train continues to barrel down its line toward another stopped train. Both parallel sequences, the subway train and Hackman’s pursuit of it, are fantastic in and of themselves, but when intercut with one another makes it almost unwatchably suspenseful. All of this is made even more impressive in that you know for a fact that you are watching a real car weave through actual Brooklyn streets in pursuit of a real subway car…not some shit CGI replication on a computer. Put it all together and by the time a woman pushing a baby carriage got in the way of Hackman’s car I found myself gasping at a film for the first time in I-don’t-know-how-long.

Friedkin plays a nasty (and by “nasty” I mean “fucking amazing”) trick on the audience in the moments following the chase by implying that another large-scale car chase is about to begin. The audience is so worn out by the last set-piece that we cannot fathom going through it again, but then Friedkin pulls back at the last moment. Again, this is how tension is built properly over the course of a motion picture, otherwise this little diversion would be nothing but wheel spinning.

Despite these big moments, some of the most memorable things about “The French Connection” are the little throwaway bits. In our introduction to New York City, Schneider’s character nonchalantly traps a possible drug lord by putting him in a phone booth and then shoving a desk against it. Then there’s the shot that contrasts Doyle eating shitty pizza and drinking coffee in the biting cold while the man he is following eats like a king inside a restaurant. Or how about Doyle mixing all of the narcotics he finds in a bar together with beer in a martini shaker while asking “Anyone want a milkshake?”

“The French Connection” is a near-perfect example of a movie knowing exactly what it is and what it needs to accomplish, then doing so without adding unnecessary dimension. It’s real, it’s terrifying and pretty damn brilliant as well.

My Score (out of 5): *****

The Narrow Margin

the narrow margin 1Writer: Earl Felton

Story: Martin Goldsmith & Jack Leonard

Director: Richard Fleischer

Cinematographer: George E. Diskant

Music: N/A

Cast: Charles McGraw, Marie Windsor, Jacqueline White, Peter Virgo, Gordon Gerbert

Release: May 2, 1952

Studio: RKO Pictures

Awards: Nominated for Best Story at the Academy Awards, but lost to “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Also nominated that year was “The Sniper.”

Percent Noir: 50%

A Los Angeles detective named Brown (Charles McGraw) has flown with his partner to Chicago to escort a mob wife to the west coast via train. Mrs. Neall not only has a payoff list with her, but will testify in court in order to take down the rest of the mafia. The group is immediately waylaid by hired guns, and Brown’s partner was killed. The good news? Mrs. Neall and Brown get away and Mrs. Neall wasn’t seen. The bad news? Brown was seen. Once they get aboard the train things get even more intense – Brown has no idea who he can trust (including, it turns out, “Mrs. Neall”), and the hired guns are getting closer and closer to their target…

When you think about the plot of “The Narrow Margin” for more than a minute, you realize that it makes zero sense. What, they didn’t have photographs back in 1952? And, to spoil the big twist, not only did a female cop decide to pose as a real-life mobster’s wife in order to seduce a clean cop to the bad side, but that mobster’s wife just happens to be taking the same train as them? Really? I mean, really? It’s a testament to the talent of the filmmakers that the viewer never asks these questions during the film’s running time because the movie is just too fabulous to worry about the little things like story fundamentals.

I wanted to get that criticism out of the way quickly, because the rest of this article is going to be glowing praise – “The Narrow Margin” is one of my favorite films noir and an essential to anyone starting out with the genre. Hell, I’ll take it a step further – it’s essential to anyone who likes movies.

the narrow margin 2Earl Felton’s screenplay is filled with witticisms and great dialogue (Brown imagines the mob widow as follows: “She’s a 60 cent special. Cheap. Flashy. Strictly poison under the gravy.”) and manages to take all the established trope characters of the crime genre and bring them to life in new ways whilst still keeping them recognizable. He also avoids easy clichés we’d expect in lesser movies. For example, when Mrs. Neall arrives at the train station to board, she has to pass a group of heavies looking to murder her (remember, they don’t know what she looks like). A lesser writer would create an intricate scene of them stopping her or her dropping something and one of the men picking it up for her… something like that. Nope, we just focus on the men and see her walk past in the background. Even though it’s more subtle, it ultimately has way more impact.

Once the train takes off and the characters are essentially trapped, the suspense becomes palpable. Brown is studying the characters surrounding him, and so are we. Is the friendly woman he keeps running into (Jacqueline White) a suspect or an innocent he’s putting in harm’s way? And what about the witty fat man (Paul Maxey) who keeps asking about the “spare bedroom” where Mrs. Neall is being held? When the big twist is unleashed – that White’s character is the real Mrs. Neall – it works for the viewer even though it shouldn’t because we’ve just had such a shock seeing the other Mrs. Neall brutally shot to death.

Director Richard Fleischer keeps ratcheting up the tension in ways both subtle and blatant. He doesn’t use a film score – instead only bringing up the insistent chugging of the train wheels against the rails. Even when he doesn’t play it up in the soundtrack, he finds ways to mimic the noises, either with a nail file or a telegraph machine. The shadows the train makes as it passes through the countryside and other trains on the rail create the most extraordinary shadows. Then, in the third act, there’s the car that keeps astride the train… waiting for it to stop… The entire hour spent on the train in a masterclass in tension and suspense, with nary a moment where the viewer feels completely at ease. I doubt even Lang or Hitchcock could have pulled it off better.

Then again, Fleischer is a genius. He’s one of those great directors you never hear much about, who spent his entire career making wonderful movies that cinephiles eat up (“20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” “The Boston Strangler,” “Fantastic Voyage”) but aren’t quite at the level where the general public is aware of them.

He utilizes his cast perfectly, from McGraw on down to Gordon Gebert, who plays the little tyke always making trouble for Brown. In any other movie, the kid would be annoying as all hell, but Fleischer makes sure the performance is realistic enough and engaged enough with McGraw’s character to work.

the narrow margin 3And then there’s that finale. Reflections are used often in thrillers, but rarely this brilliantly. Using the reflection off the opposite train window to place the real Mrs. Neall and shoot the bad guy builds to an explosive conclusion (and not just because of the gunshot). When the movie was remade with Gene Hackman in 1990, the finale was staged on the roof of the train while it was racing through the countryside, climaxing in the killer getting beheaded when the train entered a tunnel. This is much smaller, but in terms of suspense and built tension, it blows the remake out of the water.

In case you can’t tell, I love this movie. It’s one of my favorite films of all time – not just favorite thrillers. It reminds you how much you can do with a few cheap sets, some great mood lighting and character actors who may not be marquee names but sure know their way around a perfect line of dialogue. If you’ve never seen it, drop what you are doing and seek it out now. I’ll wait.

Score: *****

Pulp Fiction

pulp fiction 1AFI Top 100 Ranking: 94

Release: October 14, 1994

Writer: Quentin Tarantino, Roger Avary

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Star: John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman

Watching “Pulp Fiction” is like playing with a set of nesting dolls. Every time you open one up, another doll is found underneath, smaller but even more intricate. Though the movie takes place out of chronological order, it isn’t a puzzle. Each section of the movie can be enjoyed and understood on its own, but when put together, the pieces become transcendent.

There are three major plot threads, all of which connect to one another in varying degrees. The first follows two hit men (John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson, both great) as they try to get back a mysterious briefcase belonging to their evil boss Marsellus (Ving Rhames). The second follows Travolta’s character Vincent as he takes Marsellus’ sexy, sexy wife Mia (Uma Thurman) out to dinner. Not a date, he insists. The third involves a wrestler named Butch (Bruce Willis) who is on the run from Marsellus but can’t leave town until he reclaims his father’s watch.

pulp fiction 3Each one of these storylines is hugely enjoyable and, as in all films from co-writer/director Quentin Tarantino, it’s the details that we linger on and remember after the film ends. His dialogue, which reads just half-an-inch above realism, is endlessly quotable, and I’ll do my best to not do any of it here, simply because it’s impossible to single only one or two speeches out. He takes his time setting up the characters and allowing the audience to get a feel for who he’s about to torture and maim, but in doing this he also weaves in plenty of little Easter eggs that will pay off later (or earlier, depending on the chronology) in the movie. In lesser hands, the set-ups and pay-offs would implode, but Tarantino’s (along with co-writer Roger Avary) writing is so crisp, so seductive, that you can’t help but invest wholeheartedly in it. Speaking of Easter eggs, another splendid thing about Tarantino films are the numerous references (Travolta dancing the twist) and homages (hello briefcase with unknown substance in it) to other films, making film buffs all the happier.

Tarantino and Avary takes their time setting things up and pays them off gradually, ensuring that what is happening makes sense in relation to the characters we’ve come to know. The even tone and pacing of the movie surprisingly bring an elevated level of suspense to the proceedings than would be present in a movie that had more quick-cutting and thumping music. This is true of all of Tarantino’s work—look at the “Kill Bill” movies and “Inglourious Basterds”—but is most prominent in this film. Look at the scene where the Willis character arrives at his apartment, knowing that someone is probably there waiting to kill him. Tarantino’s camera follows him as he parks two blocks away and walks through yards to go into his building through the back way. The scene is shockingly quiet, and as a result (it seems to build forever even though it can’t be more than a minute or two long) the suspense becomes almost unbearable. The diner stick-up that climaxes the film is similarly tense because Tarantino takes his time getting to his point, not seeming to care that the audience is in their seats going crazy with anticipation.

pulp fiction 2The cast, on the whole, is brilliant. The writers have made a point of ensuring that all of the leads and supporting characters come across as fully fleshed out individuals, and the actors more than rise to the occasion. Thurman doesn’t have as much screen time as the other leads (though she does get the showstopper moment thanks to an adrenaline shot) but makes every minute count, and when she’s explaining her failed TV pilot with the kind of glee a kid on the schoolyard would speak with, you can’t help but fall for her. Willis seems at first like an odd choice, especially considering Tarantino’s dialogue, but makes his forlorn attitude and quiet demeanor work for his character. Harvey Keitel comes onscreen as the cinematic equivalent of an 11 o’clock musical number, and nails every line of his professional clean-up character. Instead of letting the article degrade into a list of praise for every actor in the ensemble (which it easily could), I’ll move on.

I do have to admit that the use of the “n-word” throughout the film is way overdone and the one major thing about the screenplay that makes me grimace. It’s not that the characters use it, it’s that it’s used so often, and usually simply for shock value. It interrupts the flow of the movie. Sure, writers have been doing this for centuries…I’m currently re-reading Truman Capote’s work and constantly rolling my eyes at how often he uses “lesbian” and “faggot” simply to get a rise out of the reader…but the movie would have been stronger without it.

Tarantino’s visual style throughout is inventive without being too showy. The visual tricks he plays are usually subtle enough to not point themselves out to the casual viewer, like having a projection with older cars playing in the background while Willis is taking a cab-ride. His work with his editor, Sally Menke, is especially notable in how well it implies violence without having to show very much of it. Remember in “Reservoir Dogs” when a character lost his ear? Though we don’t see the act on camera, you remember seeing it. The same is true here with the moment Travolta pounds the needle into Thurman’s chest. I hadn’t seen the movie in a year or two, but I clearly remembered seeing the shot where the needle enters her chest. Watching the film this time, I was wrong. But Menke does such a great job of cutting around it that it feels like we have.

“Pulp Fiction” is a little over two-and-a-half hours, but feels like it’s just about the right length. The viewer feels exhilarated as the credits roll and immediately wants to see the movie again, partially to look again for all the little moments that connect the stories, but mostly because it’s just a damn great movie.

My Score (out of 5): *****

Jennifer

jennifer 1The Noir Odyssey

Writer: No One, Apparently

Based on: the short story “Jennifer” written by Virginia Myers

Director: Joel Newton

Cinematographer: James Wong Howe

Music: Ernest Gold

Cast: Ida Lupino, Howard Duff, Robert Nichols

Release: October 25, 1953

Studio: Monogram Pictures

Percent Noir: 50%

By one measure, “Jennifer” is more about being alone than just about any other film. Its heroine, Agnes (Ida Lupino) was spurned by her lover, went through an “illness” and now finds herself the sole caretaker of a sprawling mansion in Southern California. She becomes obsessed with the previous caretaker, Jennifer, who was never seen by the townsfolk and one day just disappeared. Agnes’ love interest Jim (Howard Duff) runs the local grocery store but makes it clear early on that he’s lonely for female companionship. And the mansion itself, built in the ’20s and none-too-attractive, sits there in the California heat, alone and a few steps away from disrepair, unwanted by anyone. Every scene and sequence in the film is a meditation on loneliness, missed connections and…for Agnes and the mysterious Jennifer, the feeling that one might not be as alone as one hopes.

Damn, I wish this was a better movie.

It has all the ingredients for a great film, but nearly every moment left me wanting. It’s one of those situations where everything is “almost there,” but not quite.

The film begins with Agnes on her way to the mansion and being told in no uncertain terms by a gas station attendant that she’s not going to last long at the old creepy mansion. I’m not sure if the all-knowing gas station attendant character was a clam back in 1953, but it feels like it should have been. Agnes meets Jennifer’s sister, who informs her that Jennifer just up and disappeared one day with no explanation. The house is still filled with her stuff, and there are reminders of the woman everywhere. Key logical information is missing from this sequence: if Jennifer really disappeared, why did no one call the police? Once the finale’s twist is revealed, you see why the information was glazed over here, but that doesn’t make it any less awkward while watching.

jennifer 3Alone in the mansion, Agnes becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to Jennifer. Jim keeps telling her not to worry about it, which of course makes Agnes even more curious, and also suspicious of him – could he be the reason she is gone?

The story itself, while not original, is an engaging-enough update on gothic melodramas, most obviously “Rebecca,” and the many sequences of Agnes wandering through the house alone bring to mind the decade’s myriad of haunted house thrillers. This is mostly a noir in its visual style, specifically the stylings of the great cinematographer James Wong Howe (hey, what’s he doing as DP on a Monogram movie? More on that later…). The mansion Agnes inhabits is visually ugly, but Howe finds many intriguing, mysterious ways to fill the frame with light and shadows. Mirrors are used well here, with one in the front hall that takes up an entire wall making it seem like Agnes is being followed by someone.

It’s all the small moments that make “Jennifer” unbelievable. Agnes finds Jennifer’s diary, which is helpfully labelled “diary” (the camera lingers on the name and director Joel Newton has Lupino wipe her fingers over the name to ensure we get it. Each page of the diary has only a sentence to sum up the day, written in perfect cursive handwriting. Even considering the finale, this is pretty looney. The score, by Ernest Gold (who won an Oscar for “Exodus” and also composed for such films as “Judgement at Nuremberg”) is a mess, with a female vocalist WAILING in such a way that every time her voice appears with the score it ruins the atmosphere of the scene it underscores. And this wailing shows up a lot. And the sequences of Agnes wandering the house become repetitive only in that she never seems to investigate any of the interesting things she finds herself, instead ending the scene walking away and then exploring later with another character.

jennifer 2Lupino is all wrong for her part. While she’s played repressed wonderfully elsewhere, including the much-better gothic noir “Ladies in Retirement,” here her persona is too strong for Agnes. We sense an inherent strength in Lupino that makes Agnes’ weaknesses seem all the more silly. No one played this type of character better than Joan Fontaine (see “Rebecca” and “Suspicion”), and to imagine her in the role is to imagine a much better movie. Duff (who was then Lupino’s husband) doesn’t do much to soften Jim’s edges, making him seem almost bipolar in the way he focuses on caring for Agnes one moment and completely dismissing her the next. There’s one moment shared between the two actors in a record store that is elegantly staged and beautifully performed, but that’s the exception, not the rule.

The fact that the actors are saddled with some pretty inane dialogue doesn’t help matters. I would point the finger of blame at the screenwriter, but no one is credited! TCM credits two writers, but without a proper explanation of the credit, I don’t feel comfortable attributing their work here. This is director Newton’s sole credit, implying that the name may be a pseudonym (again, TCM credits a different person). Perhaps the film is the work of several black-listed filmmakers unable to take credit for their work? That’s how Howe ended up on the film – he was grey-listed at the time. Then again, almost all of the blacklisted filmmakers were actually good at their jobs, so perhaps my conjecture is fundamentally flawed.

Whatever the case, the mystery behind who actually made “Jennifer” is better than the film itself. Is it worth watching for the gorgeous cinematography? Maybe. But he was the DP on over 100 films, and I’m betting almost all of them were better than this, so go watch one of those instead. If you’re really in the mood for a gothic romantic thriller with a twinge of noir, I highly recommend “Rebecca” instead.

Score: *1/2